Auckland University Press, $27.99,
The Lustre Jug
Victoria University Press, $25.00,
Victoria University Press, $25.00,
One can expect that these new collections by three significant poets, each in at least mid-career, will show something of a tendency to sum up and reflect. Much, of course, is familiar: Brian Turners’ response to the landscapes of Central Otago; Bernadette Hall’s preoccupations with Irishness, origins and belief; Michele Leggott’s engagement with words and moments of illumination. True, but there is more than this. There is a strong sense that the individual poems here form part of new understandings and distillations – the writers are moving deeper.
Mirabile Dictu was launched in June at the end of Leggott’s year as New Zealand Poet Laureate. In a note to an earlier set of her poems, Dia (1996), she talked of her ambition to create complex works that demonstrated a capacity to endure and survive. These new poems, though particular, traverse what she has called old questions: friendships, family history, culture, celebration, even the remote past of palaeontology. Her willingness to experiment to achieve these goals means that her poetry is always interesting technically, though her customary tumble of words can seem like the process Jung called “amplification”, the elaboration of dream content while in a waking state. The title, everywhere instantly, for a poem set near Christchurch, seems to sum up much of her approach.
It fits that her poems often detail some kind of journey, either from time to time or place to place. As in dreams, the reader is constantly derailed on the way to destinations. Objects go missing or are found – a sculptured head from the Santa Trinità Bridge in Florence (“The Darwin Lecture”); scents and sounds intrude and vanish – hedges, apples, wintersweet, jasmine, the snap of a flag in the wind, rain, uproarious birds, remembered words from a song, or serve as guides – the scents of wintersweet, a whiff of jasmine, “a sugar/cone from Valentino’s” (“smoke tree”).
This is a poet’s poetry. Like the American writer whose work she has studied, Louis Zukofsky, Leggott uses devices that can distance the reader from the work itself and turn it into an object. Sometimes this is thematic, as in “poppies and plane trees”, where it is suggested that desire can transform the meaning of words, the Italian of pioppi so that it is mistakenly read as poppies. There may simply be wordplay as in “over under behind around/preposition proposition no position” or a startling metaphor, such as the italicised “downward tear of light”, that intrudes without grammatical preparation in the poem, “il mantello/the cloak”. All this is customary in her work but it often means the poems are difficult unless you are prepared to let the words wash back and forth, at least on a first reading. Some kind of initial immersion is required, a surrender to pure phenomenology.
It’s hard not to talk about the formal surface and preoccupation with words in these poems, as they themselves demand it. At times these aspects seem too intrusive. A wonderfully subtle poem about pregnancy (“the year of the elephant”) starts with a baby’s kicking and traverses other shocks and disturbances, strandings of giant forms (a whale, an elephant), and finishes with the tectonic:
did you feel that Isabella jumping
in utero as the vast soul
dips its wings going north some manta
out there in the dark and she
a subduction of the Pacific plate
or a minute in the arc of the spring horizon
There are, however, other elements that seem irrelevancies, such as a “haere ki te moana” and an aside about the two pounds paid for the elephant carcass. They are designedly non-poetic, alienating in impact, and possibly theoretically interesting. Yet they seem to tear at the underlying sentiment of the poem. The capacity for abundant and surprising imagery is one of Leggott’s greatest strengths but could sometimes be restrained in the interest of power and clarity. A quibble, for Mirabile Dictu has an underlying warmth and appetite for experience that creates many fine poems.
One of the pleasures of reading Bernadette Hall’s poetry is the ease with which she invites outsiders into her own relationships with friends and places. It means that she can start a poem with a trivial incident, like a collision in a supermarket (“Living in the Rebel South”), move to a shouted exchange with a friend about a lottery ticket, yet end with a more serious reflection about Ireland’s complex past of victims and oppressors. This capacity for intimacy has the surprising effect of making even her most autobiographical poems, such as “A Writer’s Life, or, a Sackful of Spuds”, seem a sharing of experience rather than a series of disclosures.
The Lustre Jug, her ninth collection of poetry, follows a period of six months in Ireland on the Rathcoola Fellowship. Though she traverses a variety of styles and subjects, ranging from anecdotes, ballad, songs, an historical sequence about the Famine, and a poem about a fox, the poems set in Ireland convey a common sense of the continuity of lives, of cruelties and wonders. Like Seamus Heaney, she reflects on the body of a person preserved in the peat of an Irish bog and the enduring fecundity of the earth:
The glass case replicates
the wetness of the bog
but not its darkness,
the wet but not the darkness
of the womb
where the mulberry changes
cell by dividing cell,
seahorse, zygote, foetus,
the tendrils of the thinkty brain
(the rainforest) and love’s little flame.
“The Naad Bog” concludes with the lines, “Look up through the eye/of heaven, see how the circle/completes itself inside the earth.” Devotion, the hope for a numinous meaning to the confusions of events, is also close to the core of many of her poems, along with a sympathetic attention to faiths that are sometimes little more than naive wishes or superstitions, expressed as humbly as the “white begonias in a green plastic bucket” at the shrine in “At Domnach Mór”.
There is an ease of delivery here, often a loosening into the cadences of song or a move from the literal into a more complex image, as in “Rathcoola Rain”, where a moment in the rain ends with: “We are thankful for rain/that slides unto the wet garden on strings of moonlight”. Despite the scenes of betrayal and exile that recur in the poems set in Ireland, there is still a feeling of the possibility of splendour. In “Picking Wild Blackberries for Jam”, this comes, in part, from the description of the berries themselves among wild fuchsia, but also in the later moments in a post office queue, where the customers are complaining about the latest exodus from Ireland of everyone except the dunderheads. When the “bright young thing” at the counter hands over a stamp to her companion: “You’d have thought I was standing next in line/to one of the old High Kings of Tara.”
The later poems in The Lustre Jug tend to be more occasional, often playful, with conversations, a text message, cliché, and an irreverent tribute to Hone Tuwhare. It’s lighter, a reflection of Hall’s enjoyment of words and enthusiasm for the possibilities poetry offers.
There is a new note in Brian Turner’s poems in Just This, a making of peace with the enemy, as though our common identity can lead to a recognition that we are part of an “immense brotherhood”, described fittingly in “A Sponsor’s Tent” as the “us in me”. Sometimes this communal sense is seen in more modest form in several poems that recall family or particular friendships. This is not, however, a squishy acceptance of everything. In poems like “Unfashionable Suggestions”, “Gilt Edge” and “Shareholders’ Meeting”, there is a curmudgeonly outrage at reality TV and the current generation of dodgy financiers, with their banal phrases such as “potential going forward” and “prospects look good in the mid-term”. In an extended series of reflections, “Considerations”, he also takes aim at vacant travel puffs, ignorance, respect for money and “improving” on nature. Like the speaker in Ecclesiastes, he finds “in much wisdom is much vexation, and the more a man knows, the more he has to suffer.”
He constantly queries how one can survive in the midst of this sterility and maintain order and integrity. Sometimes this centring is linked with the harmonies of places, the skies, the wind, stars, and snow. This is clear in “Liberty”, where he asks:
What did I learn in school today?
That there’s nothing quite like
The music of water from the mountains
If you care about liberty.
In “November Snow” the rhymed stanzas start with the evocation of snow and music, but this dreamy mood gives way to a stoical severity and echoes of Marvell’s ideas about mortality in the conclusion that:
It’s learning how to say goodbye,
to bury the lies where you lie
to have made a certain private space
that you can claim to be your place.
It is this tough-mindedness that sharpens the lyricism of the references to the places in the poems and makes sense of the claim in “Epistemologies of Place” that the very indifference of landscape “mirrors our impermanence” and demands that we act in good faith, accepting that it is we who create meanings, whether or not we believe, as he says, that “this big, unloved untidy/unwalled room is it”.
The metaphors of landscape can be risky, in that they have to carry the weight of considerable philosophising. Sometimes the message threatens to dominate, or the phrase is careless, such as the “Methuselah in drag”, which concludes “Some Basic Facts”. In the extended series of poems “Chances of Revelation”, many of the most successful sections are presented as questionings and puzzlements. The Ida Valley, for instance, is seen as nondescript to someone who speeds through, or has never climbed the surrounding hills. These shifts of perspective are true of the poems themselves. They add up to a project which Turner himself laconically summarises:
You write, in part,
and mindful always
that all is qualification
until The End, to explain
yourself to yourself
and give others their due.
There will be more poems after Just This, but possibly no better description of his poetry.
John Horrocks is a Wellington reviewer.